A Chef of Many Hats

Starting out in Alice Springs and going on to work in two Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Miles McLoughlin has always had a passion for food with a story. After a decade of catapulting through the hospitality industry in both Australia and abroad, he landed in Melbourne in November 2013 as a co-founder of Green Press. He tells us about hiding under restaurant tables, his Slumdog Millionaire cooking style, conquering hotcakes in New York and the importance of accepting anything that comes your way.

Why did you become a chef?

Like most important decisions in my life, I followed a girl – to a hospitality class. Initially I was interested in gambling and probability, so I thought a hospitality course would get me into casinos.

It was the second week of curriculum. Everyone was decked out in their whites, aprons and hats and there was me, this kid from Alice Springs wearing a basketball singlet with some Air Ones, befuddled at what was going on in the kitchen, because I had no idea what cheffing actually was. Up until this point the only experience I had was hiding under tables at restaurants waiting for my food to arrive.

You hid under tables for dinner?

Yeah, I’d just wait. When I was with my parents I would just muck around, be a bit of a rabble-rouser. So seeing the other side of restaurants was kind of fuzzy at this point.

But then the lecturer gave us something to do, this macédoine of fruit to go into a little pavlova cup they’d made the week earlier. They set me up with a demo one, and we went to a display table to put their plates up.

There were about 20 odd kids there, and the chef asked “who did this?”, pointing at mine. I put my hand up, shaking, thinking ‘oh shit, I’ve done something wrong!’ (Most of my high school years were spent in detention, so I was quite accustomed to being told off for everything.)

And then she said it was the best cutting work she’d ever seen in a first year (or no year, in my case). So that little, square inch of confidence burst into what you see today.

What’s one of your favourite memories from Alice Springs?

I lived in Alice for 16 years, and every weekend, every school holiday and every Friday afternoon was spent with a close and dear friend of mine, Kenny B, who’s not with us anymore. But every moment spent with him crystallised my childhood.

Any moments alone, I was in my own realm, creating – I guess now you’d call it fanfiction – stories of characters from TV shows and video games and movies, even Goosebumps. Anything 90s-related was cultivated and twisted to my own creation.

Does your love of comic books infiltrate your cooking in any way?

Occasionally I’ll chuck in a code name for a dish before it’s released yet, like ‘The Sentinel’ or ‘Mega Red’ or ‘Gambit’.

Tell us about what drew you to New York.

I was working in Darwin at a zero-hat restaurant. We worked hard, and I was in a dark place coming out of high school –  I’d lost a part of myself. Eventually a chef – Matt LeBeau – pulled me up. He found me in the freezer one day, just sitting on the floor, cradling myself and rocking back and forth.

He saw me, shut the door, and went about his day. At the end of the night after a shitty service (that I probably caused) he said: “Pull your head in, or don’t bother coming in tomorrow.” So I just had to get on with life.

After that it snowballed into me graduating top of my class before anyone else and becoming a certified chef before all my other friends in 2010. We ended up winning a hat for the restaurant, so we got certified and got 7 or 8 gold plates being a part of that team. We built this family dynamic that I was so happy to be a part of, and happy that I wasn’t cast aside – they had helped get me on the straight and narrow.

At the time my brother was working as a bartender in New York, and he suggested I come over. I’d visited him before for a couple of weeks and fell in love with the place, so when I finished my journey with Char Restaurant I thought, I guess I’ll go to New York. And that’s where I ended up for a year or so.

I was at a point where I needed to prove to people – and I guess myself more than anyone else – that I could go and work, and be a functioning member of the cheffing community.

There were some people who didn’t believe I could do it, so I had this fire in me to make sure people knew I could. Spite is a driving factor of a lot of my decisions.

What was one of your standout memories from New York?

One of my favourite culinary triumphs – I was working in this tiny galley of a kitchen, spinning scrambled eggs and ricotta hotcakes. I had just gotten my egg skills on point, but the next day I’m put on hotcakes and I fail miserably; they’re all burnt and stuck to the flat grill. But finally after a week of caramel-dripped turmoil I managed to make that grill purr. My eggs and burgers were a disappointment that day, but I was proud as hell of my hotcakes.

I was let go that afternoon, but still hold it a personal accomplishment.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I was cleaning down a kitchen and another apprentice beside me saw me eyeing off a waiter in the distance. I was fascinated by her. I wanted to get to know her, I wanted to know her name, what she liked to eat and what she liked to do. But I didn’t have the courage to do anything about it.

And he says to me: “Are you going to jerk off all your life, or are you going to do something about it?”

So I stood up, passed him the hose, walked over there and got myself a date.

What’s your process when you design a dish?

A lot of it draws from past experiences. Like a Slumdog Millionaire kinda style, where every question on the show can be answered by a different phase of his life so far. I draw on things that have happened previously, that kind of burst into my head whenever I see ingredients.

What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without? 

Salt’s a standard. There has to be salt in the world or I don’t really want to play anymore. Pepper. Ground pepper. Cracked pepper. Pink peppercorns, any of them. Something that people really overlook is pepper. I also fell in love with caraway recently.

How do you best express yourself, or your creativity, through cooking?

There’s a lot of problem solving. I order the produce and choose what I’m going to make with it, but occasionally it’s just that there is something here that’s in surplus I need to use it up and getting creative with it.

There’s a myth in kitchens and hospitality called portion control. It’s where you make just enough to make everyone happy, but you don’t have wastage. It doesn’t happen too often, but when you get it, it’s a very good feeling. A sense of mathematical or culinary euphoria almost.

How do you recharge from working in such an exhausting industry?

Disconnecting from everything. Lying down is amazing. Sitting down is great, but I’ll take lying down over standing any day of the week. It’s an amazing feeling. I can’t wait to do it right now.

We’re almost there! What advice would you give someone just starting out in a competitive industry like hospitality?

Accept everything.

Accept that first coffee of the day, accept that first beer of the night, accept that oyster that you don’t trust but your chef tells you: “eat it so you know what it tastes like.”

I had a chef give me piece of plastic to put in my mouth at one stage because he told me, “this is what meat tastes likef you leave it in plastic and cook it straight away.”

Accept your faults, accept blame. You gain so much respect for just accepting everything you’ve done wrong. If I could go back and accept half of the mistakes I’ve made, I’d be a lot happier today.

And accept praise; don’t shy away from a good compliment.

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Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.